A Saddam Hussein joke was circulating around the Daytona International Speedway last week. Seems that Saddam glared into the mirror in his underground bunker and asked, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the baddest of them all?"
In an antechamber, his lieutenants suddenly heard the shattering of glass and angry curses. Then, with a roar, Saddam kicked down the door and shouted, "Who the hell is Dale Earnhardt?"
Just as the fulfillment of Saddam's wish to be the baddest of them all will have to wait, so will Earnhardt's winning of his first Daytona 500. For the second year in a row a powerful bid by Earnhardt, the most successful stock car driver of the last decade, fell a heartbeat short. Instead of the Intimidator in his bad black Chevy Lumina, it was his protégé, Ernie Irvan, in a cheery yellow Chevy, who rolled into Victory Lane.
Seven years ago, Irvan, now 32, had gone east from California to try to break into Winston Cup racing. He set up near Charlotte, where many racing teams are headquartered, and began competing on the ⅓- and ½-mile short tracks—"bull rings," as they are known in the South. He did well, but the winners got three-figure purses instead of six, so he needed a lot of help to stay in the sport. One of his earliest backers was Earnhardt.
"He didn't give me any money at first, just advice and some parts," said Irvan after winning on Sunday. "But having DALE EARNHARDT CHEVROLET [the driver's dealership] painted on my car got me noticed. Then he told me he'd write me a check if I qualified for Charlotte. I think I qualified 38th. He kept his promise and wrote the check. Then he said, 'Now I'll give you the check if you finish the race.' I finished eighth, and the next year I had my own ride.
"Dale Earnhardt's opinion in the garage area is like God's to us," continued Irvan. "Right now he's the ultimate driver. He can do things with a race car that no one else can. I just hope in a couple of years he's only the second-best driver."
Irvan's regard for Earnhardt didn't keep him from blowing past his mentor and into the lead with five laps remaining in the 500. Irvan had taken his Lumina to the low side of Earnhardt's to get by. At the same time, Davey Allison's Ford Thunderbird had charged up beside Earnhardt on the high side. The fact that Allison would dare to challenge the Intimidator on the outside showed that he was anything but intimidated.
For two exhilarating laps the three of them sped around as if held together by an invisible rubber band: Irvan's bright yellow car, trailed by the black machines of Earnhardt and Allison, who were breaking all the rules of aerodynamic efficiency by running side by side. Irvan was watching his mirror as much as the road ahead of him, enjoying the action that was helping him maintain his slim lead. He knew that if Earnhardt and Allison got into line, they would form a draft, which would give both of them the extra speed to send him back into third place.
Earnhardt and Allison are notoriously stubborn characters—before he became the Intimidator, Earnhardt was known as Ironhead. Neither would get in line unless one of them backed off, a concept that each found unthinkable with the checkered flag almost in sight. The situation had a further twist: Buzzing around behind the two black cars was Joe Ruttman, in an Oldsmobile. First, Ruttman would set up behind Earnhardt, then move over behind Allison, then go back behind Earnhardt, trying to decide which of the two was faster. Meanwhile, all three drivers were becoming increasingly frantic as they watched Irvan inch away.
As the four cars sped down the back-straight at more than 200 miles an hour, with only three laps to go, Irvan looked in the mirror once again and saw a cloud of tire smoke—make that three clouds-floating over three reeling black cars: Earnhardt's, Allison's and Kyle Petty's Pontiac, which had been fifth, just behind Ruttman. Earnhardt had lost control coming off the second turn, first knocking Allison into the wall and then looping his car and smashing Petty into the wall as well.